New data provided by a federally-appointed court monitor shows that a staggering number of corrections officers continue to not show up for work, helping fuel the ongoing crisis of violence and chaos at Rikers Island.
As of November 3rd, 1,515 uniformed staffers were on sick leave and another 39 had gone AWOL. In addition, 797 were on restricted duty status or being medically monitored.
All told, nearly a third of the New York City Department of Correction’s uniformed staff is unavailable to work with incarcerated people.
Those numbers have improved, but only slightly, from two months ago, when the city filed a lawsuit against the correction officers’ union for allegedly being complicit in a months-long work stoppage paralyzing city jails. In the suit, the city claimed that the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association could “end or at least mitigate” the labor action.
“There is no plausible explanation for this dramatic increase across the board other than a concerted effort by correction officers to engage in an unlawful job slowdown through mass absenteeism,” the city’s suit alleged at the time.
But a few days later, after a union official read out a brief statement in a video court hearing in the case, encouraging officers to come to work, the de Blasio administration abruptly withdrew the lawsuit. Given the most recent attendance figures, it does not appear the mayor’s gambit has changed much.
In response to the latest numbers, jail reform advocates criticized de Blasio and the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA).
"The Mayor has failed to address the fact that thousands of guards are still collecting their paychecks without working, while incarcerated people have been abandoned in de-facto lockdown without adequate food, recreation, medical care, access to courts and more for months,” said Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda, an organization pushing for decarceration. “The guards who are working have also been abandoned by their co-workers who are abusing leave policies, and by COBA, whose leadership seems more concerned with the nearly one-third of their members who aren't working with incarcerated people than the 70% who are putting in overtime to cover for them."
The Mayor’s Office and the Law Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, argued the city has failed to hire enough guards, and cannot expect current staff to come to work while hurt.
“The reason officers are out is because they were recovering from inmate assaults that have resulted in fractured skulls, fractured eyes, fractured noses, and slashings across their arms, as evidenced by the over 1,200 officers assaulted in the past year by inmates,” Skelly said. “In addition to that, corrections officers are forced to work 24 hours straight unlike any other municipal uniformed force without meals and rest. When you’re working that many hours without being given food or rest, when you’re being assaulted, and dealing with the long term effects of Covid, you’re going to have officers out.”
In recent months, the Department of Correction has tried to get more employees to come to work. The agency has required that staff prove that they’re sick through medical examinations at various Mount Sinai hospital locations, and has also approved free food and rides to work for those officers showing up to work and enduring multiple shifts.
The city’s impending vaccine mandate could exacerbate the crisis in city jails. The city extended the deadline solely for corrections officers to December 1st, but, as of Monday, just 63% of the Department of Correction employees had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“The City’s initiatives have failed to get their workforce back on the job, and their absence is leading to extraordinary danger in the jails,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society. “We face the frightening possibility that this ongoing humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island will get worse.”
Skelly, the union spokesperson, said the unfolding disaster is of the city’s own making. “The city knew officers were retiring and resigning every month. The inmate population was up 57% last year,” he said. “Why did the city wait over three years to begin hiring new officers? It's the city’s job, not the union’s job to make sure there are enough hires to fill the backfill.”
In response to a request for comment, the Department of Correction declined to comment on the lawsuit de Blasio dropped in September, but acknowledged that the number of correction officers unable to work with detainees has shifted downwards by only a few percentage points over the past two months.
“As of the morning of September 6, 31.45% of uniformed staff were unavailable to work with incarcerated people, severely impacting the rate at which their colleagues in uniform were forced to work triple shifts,” a spokesperson for the agency said.
Editor's note—after this story published, Mitch Schwartz, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, responded with the following statement:
“The City resolved its lawsuit when the union explicitly told all its correction officers to report to work and fulfill their duty to keep our jails safe. The AWOL rates have improved since then – and if they worsen again, we’ll be ready to take appropriate action.”